If you were to look in on a typical Bar Method class, you’d see a wide diversity of age groups. Some students will be barely out of college. Others will be in their 60s. Whatever their age, they will all be equally focused on psyching their way through the shake and the burn, adjusting their bodies to the stream of form cues emanating from the teacher, and tackling the “last 20!” In these efforts they become a team, regardless of where they fit into the generational scheme of things.
Why does the Bar Method appeal to so many generations? One student in her mid-70s named Lynn gave us the answer from her vantage point. A few years ago, Lynn fell into a funk after having to give up the dance aerobic classes she loved. She'd developed chronic hamstring and knee injuries, pain in her feet and low back and muscle spasms. “My body just couldn’t take the punishment any more,” she said. Lynn tried other kinds of classes and therapy, and none of them worked for her. Then an acquaintance turned her on to the Bar Method in Redmond, Washington, and she was “blown away!” Since becoming a Bar Method student, she says, “my old bod has strengthened and streamlined,” “my ‘old age’ aches and pains have minimized, my formerly poochy abs are now flat,” and ”how fun it is to work out with so many beautiful, dedicated young women my grandkids’ age.”
Lynn's fellow student Norma had a bumpier ride getting up to speed as a Bar Method student. When Norma discovered the class in 2010, she was in her late 50s, 75 pounds overweight, and was recovering from a car accident. She managed to struggle through her first class but not without some hardship. “I was the heaviest, the oldest, and, assuredly, the most out-of-shape participant, and yet the teachers and students were so kind and encouraging that I continued to struggle through,” she remembers. When Norma turned 60, she had lost 75 pounds and wore a size 8 pant. “My doctor is amazed at my statistics,” she says. “Who would have thought?...”
Students like Lynn and Norma tell us they also enjoy the welcoming atmosphere at Bar Method studios. They especially appreciate that teachers give "options" for different body types and abilities during class. The friendliness of the staff eases students' anxieties around their first class. Rachael, for example, a student in her 40s, wrote us about her first time at the studio in Summit, New Jersey. "I changed three times before I left the house, not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise, options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me."
Does the Bar Method's supportive style of customer service appeal to younger generations too? To hear it from the brides who come to class, absolutely! These three young students wrote the Redmond studio these words of thanks for helping them them look and feel gorgeous on their wedding days:
“My arms were toned, my shoulders were sculpted and looked great in my dress, and as an added bonus, I felt more comfortable and confident in my bikini on our honeymoon than I ever have before!” Brynn
“By my wedding day I had lost 25 pounds, 3 sizes in denim and 4 dress sizes. My dress had to be taken in 3 times before we had it right!.” Stefani
“The thick, muscular, “jacked” body that I had before is long gone because The Bar Method transformed it into a strong, long and lean body instead. I was able to stand up at the altar on my wedding day with a stunning body, beautiful posture, and all the poise and self-confidence in the world.” Melanie
When you mix generations, inevitably those generations are going to start mixing with each other. Daughters and mothers, sons and fathers find a new connection as fellow students in a class that both generations can relate to. Penny, a Ridgewood, New Jersey student goes to class with daughters Carolyn and Julie because “it makes me feel as young as them!” Cheryl, another Ridgewood, mom, says of her experience attending with her daughter Alyssa, “we found it to be something that has provided tangible benefits to both of us.”
Riggs attends the Marina Del Rey studio with his son George. “My son and I are avid skiers," he wrote us, "so he got into the Bar Method… and he loves it too! We love the supportive, no-nonsense environment and the constant focus on correct form."
Jamie, another Marina Del Rey student, told us why she loves having her mom as a fellow student. “When we take class together, I can’t be next to her because her facial expressions distract me and make me laugh. We have so much fun and it’s brought us even closer than we were before.”
Jamie’s mom Rosita says she gets great benefits of her own from the class. “As a fifty-four year old woman, I am no spring chicken. My knees, like those of many women my age, hurt when I get up from bed or out of my car due to arthritis. I used to have aches and pains all over my neck, shoulders and arms. After Bar Method, I don’t feel that pain anymore…Another plus side," she added," …is what it has done for my butt.”
I’d like to end this blog by adding my own thanks to the Bar Method for what it does for my 65-year-old body: for the firm muscles around my knees it gives me that allow me to run around like a young person, for a recent bone scan of my spine which my doctor marked "good!", and, though my husband says he loves me no matter how I look, for being my age and still being able to look great for him! ;-)
In the delightful movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," Dev Patel's character has a saying, "Everything will be all right in the end. So if it's not right, it's not yet the end." Patel's motto is right on the mark, in my view, when it comes to how we're progressing on keeping ourselves healthy. Last month for example, I reported on some new scientific evidence that exercise can significantly extend youthfulness in the realms of strength, agility and leanness. One recent study found that the muscles of triathletes in their 70s and 80s ressemble those of 40-year old triathletes, while sedentary people lose most of their muscle mass by that age. A second study showed that exercise suppresses the appetites of fit people.
Did this amazing news hit the headlines and prompt people to exercise? Hardly. The reports hovered on the periphery of the media, barely noticed. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that as Patel says, "it's not yet the end." For one, our historical behavior shows that we're hard-wired to take advantage of new knowledge about our health, only it takes a number of generations for us to change our habits in the right direction. In the process it can even appear as if we're going backwards. Look at the general population's increasing weight issue and continued love affair with smoking in the face of clear evidence that both habits shorten life. I think we'll eventually get it, even though it will take a few generations before people consider eating healthy food and exercising regulary as obligatory as brushing their teeth.
Before you call me a cock-eyed optimist, I'd like you to consider one more scientific study about our health that came out within the year. Last October, Harvard psychologist and world renowned thinker Steven Pinker published the findings from this study in a fascinating book called “The Better Angels of our Nature.” Pinker's book makes a powerful case that human beings are gradually but steadily moving away from their old self-destructive ways. In his preparatory research Pinker exhaustively surveyed human violence through history, and he came to a surprising conclusion: In spite of what we see on the evening news, human violence has steadily decreased throughout history. For example in past centuries, people were prone to stabbing each other and cutting off each others' noses at the dinner table. Dinner knives are for that reason round at the tips.
Today the world in which that kind of boorish behavior was an everyday occurence is too far in our past for us to appreciate how far we've come in our table manners. Violence has decreased significantly even in the past 50 years, and we’re getting nicer to each other in other ways, among them bestowing human rights and fair treatment to others.
How do Pinker's findings relate to exercise? Though Pinker doesn’t go into detail about whether we’re treating ourselves with increasing kindness, his research points clearly in that direction, and recent mass changes in behavior do too. Before the 1960s, new mothers wore girdles rather than exercising to get back into “pre-baby shape.” Before the 1980s, people rarely thought about planning for a high quality physical old ago, just a secure financial one. Another sign of change is the fitness industry's growth from a bare existence 50 years ago to a $25 billion market last year. My reading of these shifts is that they confirm we’re in the learning stages of instilling good manners into ourselves towards our own bodies, a process that's ultimately going to involve parents en mass teaching children from an early age about good food and regular exercise. The obesity epidemic looks bad to us now, but press the zoom-out button enough times, and I think the trend away from obesity and towards a full payoff from exercise will come into view.
Two amazing research studies published over the past year have challenged some major scientific assumption about exercise. Both studies found that regular, intense exercise has much more potential than previously thought to give us strong, lean and slender bodies all our lives.
The first study, printed by The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal last November, looked at 40 “master athletes” (20 men and 20 women) whose ages ranged from the 40 to 81 years, all of whom trained intensely 4 to 6 times a week. The authors of the study wanted to investigate whether the ill effects of aging – “loss of muscle mass and strength, resulting in falls, functional decline, and the subjective feeling of weakness” – are due to muscle aging or to muscle disuse. Their 40 subjects endured a series of strength tests and had MRIs made of their quads (as shown). Their findings were astonishing. At age 60, the master athletes lost a small amount of strength and mass. After that, they lost no strength and no muscle mass. The outcome of their work, in the authors’ words, “contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging.”
The second study, this one investigating the effect of exercise on appetite, was published in February by the Journal of Applied Physiology and covered later by the New York Times. The authors of the study wanted to know if exercise increases or decreases appetite and if so, whether it influences the types of foods people crave. For their subjects they recruited 30 fit male and female athletes in their 20s, all students at California Polytechnic. The researchers told half of them to work out strenuously for an hour and half to sit for an hour. Then they attached electrodes to the volunteers’ heads (I love when scientists do this) and showed them photos of different kinds of foods. As the subjects looked at the photos, the scientists noted how much their brains’ “food-reward systems” lit up. Here’s what they found: “In the volunteers who’d been sitting for an hour,” the New York Times reported, “the food-reward system lit up, especially when they sighted high-fat, sugary items. But if they had worked out for an hour first, those same people displayed much less interest in food, according to their brain scans.” The researchers switched the roles of the two groups of volunteers got the same results.
But does exercise have the same appetite-suppressing effect on sedentary people? Not as much, according to another similar study using electrodes done on 34 overweight
subjects. Exercise did lower the appetites of 20 of the volunteers, and they lost an average of 11 pounds each. The remaining 14 members of the group were not as fortunate. Their brains’ food-reward networks, as the New York Times put it, “lit up riotously after exercise at the sight of food.” “It’s likely that, in order to achieve weight loss and weight maintenance,” concludes the leader of the Cal-Poly study Todd A. Hagobian, “you need to do a fair amount of exercise and do it often.”
Bar Method student Christine Binnendyk learned this from personal experience. "Funny how I can be ravenous for a big lunch on less physical days, yet a light lunch entirely satisfied me on more active days," she wrote me. "The longer I live, the better I become at hearing what my body is telling me."
Where does this new research leave the millions of the sedentary people in the world today? Will it make any real difference going forward in how much people exercise? Next month: some good news on this front.
Now that I’m 64 and the aging process is noticeably changing my body, I’ve become profoundly grateful to have exercise in my life. I feel especially lucky that the workout I’ve been doing for the last three decades, the Bar Method, seemed to have assumed the role of protector against time. In my 30s and 40s I loved the workout (which was then the Bar Method’s predecessor, the Lotte Berk Method) because it made me look and feel good. Over the past few years I’ve been stunned to find that my workouts, while not exactly reversing time, are turning it back significantly. Now they're not just making me more buff and toned. They’re also wiping away fatigue, mental cloudiness, grumpiness, aching joints and a host of other symptoms of the aging process. I can go into a class feeling exhausted and walk out of it almost magically energized. My muscles don't as easily retain the strength gained from my workouts like they used to decades ago, but the classes always leave me calmer, more centered, and in a better humor. I hate to think how different my life would be at this stage if I didn’t have this workout to renew me on an ongoing basis.
Everything I've reported to you in this blog thus far is old news to the medical community. Doctors and economists have been all over this subject for decades, and their research has been sending up flags about the dangers of older adults not being active. A group of several hundred physiologists found that millions of Americans are dying prematurely each year from “Sedentary Death Syndrome,” or lack of physical activity. Meanwhile, economists have determined that the cost of these deaths to our country are somewhere around three trillion dollars a year due to life-style related diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, dementia, accidental falls, and other lifestyle-related illnesses and issues. Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control estimates that if all these physically inactive Americans became active, we’d save “$77 billion in direct annual medical costs, and an estimated $150 billion in direct and indirect medical costs.”
There are signs that more and more of us in this country are beginning to understand the relationship between inactivity and illness. We see an increasing number of older people whose bodies remind us of cars that haven’t been maintenanced for decades, and their downcast, disappointed, and defeated-looking faces can't but affect us. We might ask ourselves, ”what happened to those people? Could they have been in accidents?” More likely, they’ve lived the sedentary lifestyle that our society has made the norm.
Call me an optimist, but I believe that at some point in our future history, people will figure out a way out of this pitfall. The results have come in from our mass experiment with inactivity. We know that it hurts us, especially now that we’re living longer. Fortunately, as a species we’re ambitious when it comes to our right to enjoy life to the last drop, and we have the drive, ability and adaptability to reinvent ourselves when it serves our purposes. One example from the past is our dental care habits, which have evolved to become unrecognizable from the way they were 200 years ago. “Sedentary Death Syndrome” is actually a pretty recent problem. People started to become inactive in great numbers less than a century ago when enough modern conveniences were invented to relieve them of the necessary of exerting their bodies. We're really just in the preliminary stages of tackling this challenge.
Already some Americans have been deciding to lead very active lives in their later years. Jack LaLanne lifted weight into his 90s. Cloris Leachman competed in Dancing With The Stars at age 82, and the wonderful 83-year-old photographer Bill Cunningham still spends his days riding his bike around Manhattan with the grace of a dancer shooting street fashion for the New York Times. I’d like to imagine that in a few hundred years these athletic late-lifestyles will no longer be the exception but our new norm.
Exercise affects people differently at different ages. I never gave much thought to how age would impact the results I got from exercise; that is until it did. At age 36, three Lotte Berk Method classes a week – all I could afford at that time -- were enough to give me thighs and buns like rocks. In my 40s I opened my first exercise studio, so I bumped up my attendance to four times a week. That extra weekly class made me even stronger and more toned, which led me to believe that I could hold onto my level of fitness indefinitely simply by continuing to work out at that rate.
I’d love to report that over the next 20 years, exercising that much protected my body against aging, but that is not the case. By my late 50s, I began to notice that skipping class for more than a few days in a row left me feeling weak, and that I had to struggle through a week’s worth of classes after such a lapse to recover my strength. When I hit 60, my muscles started to feel like sieves, the strength draining out of them unless I attended class very regularly. Now that I’m closing in on 63, I find that the Bar Method is still giving me great results, but I need to take class five times a week to get them.
My story is typical of regular exercisers. According to a report by Dr. Stephen Seiler, a leading sports scientist, “after about age 60, strength levels fall more rapidly” in people who strength train on a long-term basis. ”The good news,” he writes, are that these declines “are diminished by continued training.”
What happens, then, to people who don’t exercise? The study cited by Dr. Seiler found that their decline in muscle strength starts decades earlier, in their 30s, and then accelerates relative to their active peers. The way to avoid this loss, it turns out, is exercise more often as you get older.
Sedentary people not only get weaker by the way. They also get heavier. A recent study of 34,079 non-dieting middle-aged women published last month by the Institute of Medicine found that over 13 years these women gained an average of six pounds each. A subgroup of 13% of the women, however, did not gain weight. These were the women in the study who did moderate-to-intense exercise for about hour a day every day. Even the ones who exercised a half-an-hour of a day, which doctors have recommended for years, didn’t keep the extra weight from coming on.
These findings make sense when you consider a long-known fact about our bodies. Without exercise we lose on average about a half a pound of muscle mass a year. That adds up, over 20 years, to 10 fewer pounds of muscle to burn the calories consumed.
I’m happy to know that upping my number of classes per week has special benefits related to my age. That is good news but the really good news according to Dr. Seller is that you can begin strength training at any age and make significant gains in your muscle mass. I also feel fortunate that I do the Bar Method because it continues to feel good on my body as I get older. It is so safe and gentle that it’s something I can do all my life to maintain my strength.